Embodying Dislocation: A Mirror for Magistrates and Property Relations [*]

By Ellis, Jim | Renaissance Quarterly, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

Embodying Dislocation: A Mirror for Magistrates and Property Relations [*]


Ellis, Jim, Renaissance Quarterly


This paper argues that A Mirror for Magistrates's fascination with the mutilated bodies of its subjects, and its compulsive retelling of ambition punished offer evidence of cultural trauma. The works of legal theorist Margaret Jane Radin and psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan are combined to explore the subjective consequences of changing conceptions of property.

Over the past three hundred years, A Mirror for Magistrates has gone through a total of three printings of two editions; criticism written during this period shows a corresponding level of enthusiasm. In 1738, E. Cooper reported that it had already "sunk under the ruins of time" as a result of the uneven quality of the writing, and this judgement has never really been challenged (89). Accordingly, Paul Budra sums up the history of Mirror criticism as consisting of two basic positions: "either the individual tragedies are shown to be predictable stories of the schematic retribution inflicted upon the morally or politically corrupt, and are therefore consistent and tedious, or they are shown to be a haphazard assortment of tales mixing divine Providence with irrational Fortune, and are therefore inconsistent and tedious." [1] The work was, however, enormously popular and influential in its own time, spawning a whole host of imitators, and going through a number of printings of at least eleven different editions in its first fifty years. [2] The Mirror thus provides quite a spectacular example of change in literary taste, a change in fortunes that will be one of the concerns of this essay. How is it that the reception of a poem can shift so dramatically, or, to approach this question from a different angle, what did the Elizabethans find so fascinating about this poem that the rest of us have been missing?

The Elizabethan fascination with the poem, I will argue, has to do with a whole series of economic and cultural changes, which I will be looking at largely through the framework of property relations. Legal scholar Margaret Jane Radin has written extensively on what she calls the "personhood" perspective on property a perspective which focusses attention on the relations between people and things, looking in particular at such questions as what is and is not property and which kinds of property can and cannot be alienated. [3] Such a perspective allows us to see a continuum between, for example, such early modern phenomena as the enclosure riots, which are clearly about property rights; social mobility, which is at least partially a matter of changing conceptions of property; and social status, which does not at least initially seem to have to do with property, but rather with properties of the self. In this light, the various social and economic changes in the early modern period can be seen as challenges t o earlier conceptions of property and the value of Radin's approach is to show us that these changes necessarily must be accompanied by changes in the nature of the self. Although A Mirror for Magistrates does not often seem concerned with property in the more usual sense, it is intensely interested in the properties of the self, and it may well record some of the psychic turbulence caused by social change. It will be my contention in this paper that the poem is at some level struggling with changing properties of the self, most obviously in its obsession with the effects of social mobility. The alienated ghosts of the text may bear witness to more than simply their crimes: they are bearing witness to a shift in their society's relation to property and the trauma that such a shift might cause.

Both the Mirror and the Mirror's popularity are the products of trauma, a trauma that is the result of at least temporarily intolerable demands for an alteration of the ego. Critics of the Mirror have often noted both its lack of consistency, stylistic and otherwise, and its frequent internal contradictions. One of the more peculiar features of the Mirror is its fascination with the mutilated bodies of its subjects, and its compulsive return to the spectacle of the body in pieces. …

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Embodying Dislocation: A Mirror for Magistrates and Property Relations [*]
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